Once again my interests in beer and books unite! Recently published in June 2018, this book was written by Chicago Tribune writer Josh Noel who, over the course of its 400-plus pages, guides the reader on a behind the scenes look at how Chicago’s Goose Island Beer Company became one of the country’s top craft breweries and how its sale to the Brazilian/Belgian conglomerate AB-Inbev, the parent company of Anheuser-Busch, Grupo Modelo, and many, many other breweries across the world, in 2011 shook the American beer industry. For any readers that may not know, this was huge news in the beer world at the time as Goose Island was one of the first major American craft breweries to be acquired by Inbev, and many consumers and craft brewers alike loudly accused Goose Island and its founders of selling out to the bad guys in Big Beer.
I found this to be a really interesting and informative read as Noel presented a thoughtful and engaging narrative about Goose Island and the people behind it. I’ve had my share of their brews over the years, highlighted by a visit to the Wrigleyville brewpub before going to a Yankees-Cubs game several years back, and appreciated getting some additional background about the company’s beers and history. In the earlier chapters that focused on the brewery’s origin story, what I most enjoyed reading about were the difficulties the owners faced introducing their brand of beer to consumers who, in the mid-80s, were for the most part conditioned to think that the yellow, mild lagers pushed by Budweiser and Miller were the be all and end all of beer. It is amazing to think about how far the American beer scene has come in that time and it was fascinated to read about the changes Goose Island helped usher in.
As for the second part of the book, in which Noel examined the cultural and economic impact of the brewery’s sale on the American brewing industry, I particularly enjoyed how he framed the concerns about this, and subsequent acquisitions by Inbev, in the context of production and distribution. I felt made for a very tangible and compelling argument against Big Beer. These are probably the aspects of the industry most consumers think about the least, but they are so vital to understanding what is at stake here. The threat to the craft beer industry, and by extension its consumers, from AB-Inbev is that it can use its vastly superior finances and (often borderline illegal) clout with distributors to muscle in and push smaller breweries off of shelves and taplists. This, in conjunction with purposefully obfuscating ownership of their umbrella brands, puts them in a position to deceive consumers into thinking they have a choice of brands when in reality they might not. To cite an example from the text:
Few people would recognize a draft list of Goose Island, Elysian, 10 Barrel, Widmer, Stella, and Bud and Bud Light as the absence of choice. Yet, quietly, that’s what is was.
And that’s only a small sampling of the possibilities, especially as AB continues to acquire new brands. This strategy, combined with a disingenuous campaign urging consumers to focus solely on the beer in the glass as opposed to who puts it there shows the lengths Inbev will go in order to cash in on America’s love of craft beer. While there is certainly some merit to this argument, its real aim is to distract consumers from the fact that AB is spending a whole lot of money in an attempt to be the only company putting beer in your glass.
Again, I really enjoyed this book and learned quite a bit of new information about the beer business. It also gave me with a few things to think about next time I am out and looking for a drink, especially with the annual release of Goose Island’s popular (and undeniably delicious) Bourbon County Brand Stout lineup coming up on Black Friday. People are, of course, free to drink what they like, though I think I personally may take a break from that beer for little while knowing what the money goes to. I know it’s ultimately not the most serious of issues facing the country at the moment, but it is one that I do have interest in.